Piazza follows the cultural history of his adopted city (Why New Orleans Matters, 2005, etc.) with this powerfully empathetic second novel about Katrina’s impact in 2005.
His focus is two New Orleans families; one white, one black. The white Donaldsons (husband Craig, wife Alice, two small kids) are transplants from the Midwest. Craig, editor of an alternative newsmagazine, loves the city; it is his “refuge.” Alice has become disenchanted; this strains their marriage. In the predominantly black Lower Ninth Ward are the Williamses: SJ, his older sister, Lucy, and her 19-year-old son, Wesley. SJ is a third-generation Orleansian with his own carpentry and repair business. A widower, SJ has seldom dated since his wife’s death, finding salvation in work. The less disciplined Lucy battles drug and alcohol problems, and is a loving but part-time mother to Wesley. The story chronicles the time before, during and after Katrina. The Donaldsons leave town, endure horrendous traffic and wind up with distant relatives in Chicago; the Williamses stay put. The day after the hurricane SJ finds himself living in a lake; only his second floor is habitable. He commandeers a rowboat, as dead bodies float past him, and rescues neighbors; a Vietnam vet, SJ knows how to tamp down emotions. What pulls the reader in is this struggle with adversity; the sensitively portrayed Donaldsons are necessary for Piazza’s balanced, big-picture view, but their suffering is just an itch compared to the travails of the Williamses, and that’s a problem. In their confrontations with death, their accidental separation and disorienting relocations (Missouri, upstate New York), SJ, Lucy and Wesley (eventually reunited in Houston) are simply more real. The Donaldsons, after some lucky breaks, make the wrenching decision to stay in Chicago, while New Orleans, though looking post-Katrina like someone who “had had a lobotomy,” still has enough spirit to celebrate Mardi Gras.
The struggles of the two families depicted are not always well balanced, but Piazza’s writing is so fresh and vital readers will feel, all over again, the outrage at the abandonment of this beloved city.